Realistic Christian Behavior

Bethany House recently published a book, My Stubborn Heart, in which the
characters engage in behavior and use words that are offensive to some
Christians. Some of the reviewers on Amazon expressed their displeasure at
finding unsavory actions and words in a Christian novel.  
My Stubborn Heart is not a children’s book, but after reading about this on Mike Duran’s blog, I read the book because this issue of
realistic fiction is important to me. Since I’m trying to write books that
please God and edify readers, I’m always asking myself what kinds of behavior are allowable for Christian characters.
Christians sin.

So I used to think we needed to allow sin
but demand consequences.
But sometimes sinners aren’t caught. Sometimes there are no
apparent consequences. Sometimes God doesn’t strike them dead. Lot, the guy who offered his virgin daughters to the
slavering mob, is commended as being a righteous man.
And if we scold for every sin, we come across as preachy.
Okay, but does that mean I want my heroine to sin and get
away without a good talking to? Won’t that embolden young readers to follow in
her footsteps?
Becky Wade, the author of My Stubborn Heart, is a talented
writer and I loved her characters. Really cared about them. And yet, I was
bothered by the way some of them acted.
The book was realistic. The old-women characters didn’t act
the way my Christian women friends act, but they did act the way some Christian
women act, apparently. The heroine didn’t look at men the way I’ve tried to teach
my daughter to look at men, and yet she looked at men the way many young
Christian women look at men, I’m afraid.  
The characters were not all mature Christians and some of
them were not even aware that they were sinning.
Just like real life.
I think if we want realistic books, and we should all want
those, we have to allow Christian characters to sin without getting caught
sometimes. Not every girl who has premarital sex gets pregnant. Not every boy
who drives drunk gets in a wreck.
The more I think about this the more I think we need to
allow our characters to be who they are and trust the reader to have some
discernment.
Our readers are bumping up against sinful people in the
world every day. They have to pick up discernment sometime, because we can’t
follow our children around all day telling them what’s sin and what’s not.
Writers can’t teach discernment by having heroes that are
perfect and villains who are all bad. That doesn’t give readers an honest view
of human nature. We can help readers by giving them contrasting characters, so
they can compare the two and decide which one is doing right and which one is
sinning. In the end, though, we need to trust our readers to get it.  
Do the readers not know that Tom Sawyer is acting in his own
best interest and not really loving his neighbors when he talks them into
paying him for the privilege of whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence? Is there any
question that Matthew Cuthbert is softer and kinder than Marilla Cuthbert but
not more loving or loyal? Don’t we know that Mrs. Bennett is a manipulative
hypocrite?  
How do we know these things? Because we know how we want to
be treated.  
So this is what I think we need to do. I think we need to let
our characters sin, and we need to trust our readers to know the difference
between right and wrong. I lean toward having the main character recognize her
sin and grow out of it or make some progress fighting it, but letting the
secondary characters go on in sin. And we may even let some small sins slide by
in our main characters, without consequence. The reader will most likely see
them. We’re very good at spotting sin in others.
What do you think? Are you bothered when Christian
characters donโ€™t come to repent for their sin during the course of the book? Do
you always have someone scold the sinners in your books or do you always
require a consequence? Do you think we judge Christian books more harshly than
we judge general market books?

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 is the local liaison for SCBWI in Cobb County, Georgia. She has published short works in a number of places and has received an SCBWI Work in Progress grant. She can usually be found blogging about young adult novels at sally-apokedak.com